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Filmed on Wednesday January 13, 02010

Wade Davis

The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, and photographer whose books include The Serpent and the Rainbow, One River, Shadows in the Sun, and The Lost Amazon. His film credits include "Light at the Edge of the World," an eight hour documentary series produced for the National Geographic.

Anthropologist Wade Davis is one of the world's great story tellers, with personal adventures to match. An Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, he specializes in hanging out with traditional peoples and exploring their religious practices.

He first came to public notice with his discovery of the reality of zombies in Haitian voodoo and the substance used to poison them---chronicled in his 1985 book, The Serpent and the Rainbow. He is the author of 13 books, including One River and Shadows in the Suns, and has hosted, written, and starred in numerous television specials, including "Earthguide," "Light at the Edge of the World," "Spirit of the Mask," and "Forests Forever." This talk is based on the prestigious Massey Lectures that Davis gave in Canada in 2009.

Native guidance

What does it mean to be human and alive?

The thousands of different cultures and languages on Earth have compellingly different answers to that question. "We are a wildly imaginative and creative species," Davis declared, and then proved it with his accounts and photographs of humanity plumbing the soul of culture, of psyche, and of landscape.

He began with Polynesians, the wayfinders who mastered the Pacific ocean in the world's largest diaspora. Without writing or chronometers they learned 220 stars by name, learned to read the subtle influence of distant islands on wave patterns and clouds, and navigated the open sea by a sheer act of integrative memory. For the duration of an ocean passage "navigators do not sleep."

In the Amazon, which used to be thought of as a "green hell" or "counterfeit paradise," living remnants may be found of complex forest civilizations that transformed 20 percent of the land into arable soil. The Anaconda peoples carry out five-day rituals with 250 people in vast longhouses, and live by stringent rules such as requiring that everyone must marry outside their language. Their mastery of botany let them find exactly the right combination of subspecies of plants to concoct ayahuasca, a drug so potent that one ethnobotantist described the effect of having it blown up your nose by a shaman as "like being shot out of a rifle barrel lined with Baroque paintings and landing in a sea of electricity."

In the Andes the Incas built 8,500 miles of roads over impossibly vertical country in a hundred years, and their descendents still run the mountains on intense ritual pilgrimages, grounding their culture in every detail of the landscape.

In Haiti, during the four years Davis spent discovering the chemical used to make real-life zombies, he saw intact African religion alive in the practice of voodoo. "The dead must serve the living by becoming manifest" in those possessed. It was his first experience in "the power of culture to create new realities."

The threat to cultures is often ideological, Davis noted, such as when Mao whispered in the ear of the Dalai Lama that "all religion is poison," set about destroying Tibetan culture.

The genius of culture is the ability to survive in impossible conditions, Davis concluded. We cannot afford to lose any of that variety of skills, because we are not only impoverished without it, we are vulnerable without it.

PS. Wade Davis' SALT talk was based on his five Massey Lectures in Canada in 02009, which are collected in a book, The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.

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